A child or young person who is being cared for by their local authority is known as a ‘looked-after’ child. They might be living in a children’s home, or with foster parents, or in some other family arrangement.
Although the term used is ‘looked-after child’, this refers to any young person up to the age of 18. The child or young person may have been taken into care for a variety of reasons – for example, some children or young people may be in care because their parents cannot cope, perhaps because of illness or disability, or because of family breakdown.
The most common reason for a child to be taken into care is to protect them from abuse or neglect.
Evidence suggests that experiencing abuse or neglect (also known as maltreatment) increases the risk of a child or young person experiencing symptoms of trauma. Maltreatment is considered a major adverse childhood event (ACE) with long-term damaging effects on children and young people’s physical and mental health.
Moving into care can be a further traumatic experience, due to increased levels of uncertainty and insecurity, as well as feelings of loss. Changes in care placements affect not only relationships with family and friends, but also wider relationships, such as those in the child or young person’s school.
Because of their experiences both before and during care, looked-after children are at much greater risk of poor mental health than their peers. Research suggests that around 45% of looked-after children have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and up to 70%-80% have recognisable mental health concerns.
Find out more about looked-after children
MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. Resources can be used for individual professional training as well as prompting wider staff discussion. These sessions aim to help staff better understand how being in care affects children:
What schools and further education settings can do
If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.
All looked-after children will have a personal education plan, or PEP, (known as a Care Plan in Scotland) which will keep a record of a child’s developmental and educational needs, including any special educational needs.
The PEP or Care Plan brings together relevant professionals to monitor a child or young person’s educational needs and progress throughout their education, setting short-term targets and longer-term plans.
It’s important that schools and further education settings understand the powerful role they can play in improving the quality of life, educational experiences and attainment of looked-after children by:
- Creating a safe, caring and respectful school and classroom environment to help children and young people develop healthy, safe, reliable adult attachments and build resilience. It is important that a child or young person has at least one key person in school or college with whom they can form a good relationship.
- Being kind, consistent and gently persevering in attempts to build relationships. Positive school/classroom relationships built on trust and security can promote a child or young person’s sense of safety and wellbeing and encourage them to open up and talk.
- Helping to build children and young people’s understanding of their own thoughts, emotions and feelings; developing their self-esteem; and promoting healthy relationships and other social and emotional skills though whole-school programmes and targeted, small group work.
- Being sensitive around curriculum topics such as ‘family trees’ or mother’s/father’s days etc. Meet with carers to find out some of the child or young person’s history and to discuss upcoming events/celebrations at school which may trigger difficult feelings.
- Developing strong partnerships with carers, local councils and specialist agencies. Carers in particular can feel unsupported in their efforts to help children thrive and may welcome working together to promote a child or young person’s wellbeing.
- Providing support at times of change and transition. A looked-after child may have had multiple losses and changes; relatively small things such as having a supply teacher can have an impact. Prepare them for upcoming changes and offer extra support at the beginning and end of the day, term and year.
- Supporting looked-after children who need extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support, nurture groups, school clubs, summer schemes or through referral to community-based support.
- Ensuring all looked-after children have a Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire completed. Keep up-to-date with fluctuations in their SDQ and take early action with partners to help mobilise and strengthen protective factors and resilience.
Finally, it is important that school staff take the time to care for themselves. Building relationships with children and young people who have experienced maltreatment can be challenging. It is important that staff have access to opportunities to reflect through regular debriefs and supervision from school leaders.